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Posted at 02:28 PM ET, 01/17/2012

Beyond the Wikipedia blackout, don’t drop the SOPA

How dare they. Denying all of us information we want and need, just to make a useless gesture?

I’m not talking about the Wednesday Wikipedia blackout. I’m talking about SOPA itself.

On Wednesday, Wikipedia is scheduling a blackout to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act. I’ve written about SOPA before — in brief, in the name of stopping piracy by foreign bad actors, it creates a horrifyingly broad authority to censor online content. It would require Internet service providers, search engines and payment network providers to block access to entire sites accused of infringing copyright. The fact that the people charged with deciding if it passes, by and large, are middle-aged members of Congress who don’t realize that a domain name and an IP address are two different things might be enough reason to oppose it even if its potential weren’t so worrisome.

The whole Internet has been up in arms about the proposed measure. It’s even become an issue on the campaign trail — as well it should. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) has taken serious flak for his support of the bill. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came under fire — and then came out against it. Mitt Romney even got a question about it.

And no wonder. If someone said that he was not an expert but that he was going to possibly disembowel your entire family, but it would probably be all right, and the people who made “Jack and Jill” stood behind him and gave you a big thumbs-up, you would drop everything you were doing to stop him.

Well, they are trying to do that to something we can all agree is far more interesting than our families: the Internet.

Families come and go. Try talking to them for more than six minutes without whipping out your cell phone to see what Twitter is doing.

By and large, the strongest predictor for opposing SOPA is “being a person who uses the Internet and has some idea of how it works.” Supporting it? Receiving money from the MPAA.

I have nothing against content creators. I am one myself. I am fond of the motion picture industry. After all, they gave us “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.” The last thing I would want would be for them to stop doing that sort of thing.

But they have been complaining about new technology since before the DVD player. Sure, we can all agree now that the eight-track tape was a mistake, but not for the reasons they cited. Where most of us see opportunity, creativity and a way to order pizza without talking to another human being, they see Yet Another Way To Violate Copyright. Had they been around in the Stone Age they would no doubt have opposed the wheel. “That’ll allow people to escape more quickly when stealing copyrighted content!”

They say it’ll cost millions of jobs. But for years, the numbers cited against online piracy have been coming under fire. Back in 2010, the GAO, a traditionally staid organization, noted that it had difficulty substantiating three of the most-often-cited piracy figures. “Generally,” the GAO noted, “the illicit nature of counterfeiting and piracy makes estimating the economic impact of IP infringements extremely difficult, so assumptions must be used to offset the lack of data. Efforts to estimate losses involve assumptions such as the rate at which consumers would substitute counterfeit for legitimate products, which can have enormous impacts on the resulting estimates.” This is not to say that piracy isn’t a problem — of course it is. But the solution in this case is almost definitely worse than even the most generous estimate of the harm being caused.

So, I’m reassured that Wikipedia is inconveniencing us on Wednesday. This one is too big to ignore. We’d better wrest the precious Internet out of the bungling hands of committee members who — at best, admit that they don’t know what they’re talking about, and, at worst, want to pass the measure anyway. This is not something that should be rushed through — this is the Internet here, and when the people who built it say this could have a terrible, chilling effect, damage our cybersecurity and Congress retorts that it is fine, because they will fix it later, we need to hear about this every day. The yelling’s already had an impact. Lamar Smith has already moved to remove the DNS-blocking provisions, and the House bill may be dormant for the moment. But with Congress back in session, it’s worth keeping an eye on.

Besides, Wikipedia can turn everything back on on Thursday. The Internet, post-SOPA, should be so lucky.

By  |  02:28 PM ET, 01/17/2012

Tags:  SOPA, the Internet

 
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